The kids are alright

The All-Japan High School Football tournament yet again provided a great start to the new year, with the semi-finals and final serving up three very entertaining games at Tokyo National Stadium complete with some lovely football, a few errors – which always add to entertainment levels – and more than enough drama to ring in 2023. (日本語版)

Eventual champions Okayama showed what they were made of in their semi-final against the highly-fancied Kamimura on 7 January, coming from behind twice to draw 3-3 before maintaining their composure from 12 yards to progress 4-1 after a penalty shoot-out. 

Higashiyama also needed penalties to emerge victorious from their semi-final against Ozu later the same day, drawing 1-1 and then exhibiting similar perfection as they converted all of their kicks to win 4-1 and ensure that either they or Okayama would be celebrating a first ever championship.

In some quarters Kamimura and Ozu was perhaps seen as the preferred final pairing because of their star players and pedigree, but on the balance of each 90 minutes Okayama and Higashiyama were worthy finalists. Both were better organised and more rounded teams than their opponents, with Kamimura and Ozu arguably having more talented individuals but lacking overall cohesion – something especially clear in the dichotomy between Kamimura’s slick attack and porous defence.

In Shio Fukuda Kamimura certainly possessed one of the biggest draws in the competition, and the Borussia Monchengladbach-bound striker showcased his full range of abilities on the frontline with some expert hold-up play and a keen striker’s instinct in front of goal – reacting fastest to pounce on a rebound after Okayama goalkeeper Jin Hiratsuka could only parry Reo Kinjo’s shot from the edge of the area to tie things up at 1-1 after the impressive Yuma Taguchi had given Okayama an early lead.

Fukuda went close on a couple of other occasions as well, but ultimately Kamimura paid the price for conceding three and then four minutes after scoring their second and third goals before losing their nerve and missing two of their three penalties to fall at the final hurdle.

There were fewer goals in the second semi-final, but we were treated to an absolute peach by Keita Matsuhashi, whose first touch for his 63rd-minute equaliser was exquisite and left him with the relatively simple task of tucking home from close-range.

Mizuki Sato then stepped up to the plate in the penalty shoot-out, managing to outfox the Ozu kickers without resorting to Emi Martinez levels of gamesmanship and leaving Matsuhashi with the opportunity to pace out his effort and decisively slam home to send his team into the final.

“Mizuki had made the saves, so I felt at ease before I took my kick and just made sure to hit it cleanly,” Matsuhashi said afterwards.

Two days later a moment’s silence was observed for Pele ahead of kick-off, and the Brazilian legend would have approved of plenty of the play over the subsequent 90 minutes, as both teams looked to play proactively and make things happen.

The pitch looked a bit pot-holed after being torn up by the All-Japan University Rugby Championship final on the previous day, and with that in mind Okayama got us off to a fitting start by punting the ball immediately forward from kick-off and having four players charge down their left wing to contest it (a tactic Higashiyama went on to mimic in the second half).

Both teams looked to mix things up between neat build-up play and more simple balls sent directly in behind, and Okayama drew first blood in the 25th minute when Takuto Imai’s cross was turned into his own net by Higashiyama captain Rikuto Shintani.

Higashiyama held their nerve after that blow and gradually worked their way back into the game though, and while Matsuhashi earned a reputation for his long throws during the competition he showed he has much more in his locker than that. The 18-year-old is a little reminiscent of Urawa Reds’ Ken Iwao and is a calm and classy operator in the middle of the park, getting himself out of a tight spot on the right flank at one point with a lovely Cruyff turn that instantly bought him time and space that never looked available.

He mentioned after the semi final that he had dropped into a deeper-lying position after starting his career as a more attack-minded player on account of his not scoring enough goals, and that was evidenced in the 41st minute as he got the execution all wrong on the bobbly pitch and skied high and wide to waste a promising break.

Three minutes later he showed what he can do so well, however, feeding a smart ball in behind for Keijiro Kitamura to tear onto and cut back for Renji Sanada to steer clinically home from the edge of the area and send the teams in tied at the break.

Okayama came out the sharper at the start of the second half though, and after Higashiyama left-back Yuma Nakazato set the wheels in motion for their second goal by rather carelessly heading a long ball from Hiratsuka in-field, possession was worked to the opposite flank and Kyogo Kimura – all 165cm of him – headed home clinically to make it 2-1.

In the 74th minute Higashiyama very nearly pulled level again, but despite arriving in perfect time to meet a Sanada cross and beating Hiratsuka Reiya Sakata saw his header cannon back off the bar, and having survived that scare Okayama wrapped up the win with five minutes to play as Kimura again found space in the box to steer home and seal the title for his school.

Almost every player in blue and black dropped to the turf as the ecstasy and exhaustion overcame them at full time, with match-winner Kimura going on to say he is hoping to turn professional one day. On the basis of this year’s competition, he and several others certainly have bright futures ahead of them.


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January 2023

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